After a week of eluding questions about LeSean McCoy, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt finally gave in and gushed about the precocious freshman tailback.
Despite wearing No. 9 for a while before changing to his No. 25 jersey, “Shady” proved to be the real McCoy.
“I’ve been somewhat hesitant to say his name but after today’s practice, you have to say some good things,” Wannstedt said. “LeSean McCoy made plays this afternoon that were awfully exciting. I think he’s working extremely hard. He’s learning the offense. He’s playing tough. Those were the things we initially were waiting to see. But he had a good day.”
Wannstedt had good reason, considering McCoy continues to shine during team drills. First, he turned one screen pass into a first down by slipping the grasp of middle linebacker Scott McKillop. Then he took a swing pass and shook cornerback Buddy Jackson, who pulled McCoy down by the back of his jersey.
Lafter, McCoy had one of the highlights of training camp. He caught a screen pass in the left flat, cut hard right and shook two defenders, causing cornerback Ricky Gary and linebacker Dorin Dickerson to fall. McCoy then beat safety Jovani Chappel to the right sideline and sprinted for a touchdown that left onlookers amazed.
Don’t be surprised to see No. 25 in the starting lineup.
• That said, the Panthers will find a way to get the ball in the hands of junior LaRod Stephens-Howling, who caught a screen pass from Bill Stull, followed the blocking of 340-pound left tackle Jeff Otah and raced down the left sideline for a touchdown to the cheers of the white jerseys.
• Wannstedt also raved about the performance of redshirt sophomore Mick Williams, who has dealt with various injuries but appears to be healthy for the first time.
The 6-foot-1, 290-pound Williams is making a strong push for playing time, working in with sophomore Tommie Duhart on the second team at defensive tackle. The former Monessen star has consistently either made plays in the backfield or chased them down from behind.
“The other guy we really didn’t talk about being in the mix with the defensive line but has probably practiced as well as anybody the last two days is Mick Williams,” Wannstedt said. “Mick is back and he is explosive. He’s fast. He’s not very tall, but he can run and he’s had a very good last couple days. Mick is definitely in the rotation.”
• A third player who drew praise was sophomore Dorin Dickerson, who is making a nice conversion to strong-side linebacker. Dickerson is running with the second team, behind Adam Gunn, but is making a case for a starting job.
Dickerson intercepted two passes in practice, the first a pick of a Kevan Smith rollout left that was intended for tight end Nate Byham. The second came when freshman defensive end Jabaal Sheard deflected a Smith pass at the line of scrimmage and Dickerson made a diving catch.
“I think Dorin and Nate Nix both are making a little bit of a move,” Wannstedt said. “I’m pleased with both of those guys. Think about this: He missed half the spring. He’s playing a position he’s never played. He’ll go the wrong way one play, but he had two interceptions today that not many guys on this team can make because they were totally athletic plays. You’re always looking to weigh some inexperience with great athleticism, and that’s what we have here.”
• Although Wannstedt loves to see his defense succeed – especially after two six-loss seasons – he was disappointed by the offense’s continued carelessness.
In addition to Smith’s two interceptions, there was another fumbled quarterback-center exchange, this time between walk-on Andrew Janocko and freshman Greg Gaskins. And safety Eric Thatcher recovered two fumbles, the first by LaRod Stephens-Howling after being stood up by Scott McKillop and the second by tight end Darrell Strong after Gunn hit him low.
“We did some good things on offense, but we’re still turning the ball over too much,” Wannstedt said. “We had one exchange on the ground. We threw a pick – Dorin Dickerson made a great play on it – but we still turned it over too many times, and we’re not going to beat anybody doing that.”
• The battle at nose tackle is ongoing, as junior Rashaad Duncan and sophomore John Malecki continue to take turns working with the first-team defense. Duncan has had an outstanding camp, while Malecki is a favorite because of his toughness.
• Walk-on Alex Karabin played center for the second-team offense for the second consecutive day, alongside left tackle Chase Clowser, left guard Chris Jacobson, right guard Dom Williams and right tackle John Bachman.
• Nix is battling with fifth-year senior Jemeel Brady, a converted safety, for the second-string weak-side linebacker job. At 6-3, 225 pounds – up 27 pounds from his freshman year – Nix is starting to look like he did at Thomas Jefferson, when he was a defensive force.
Speaking of TJ, freshman Dom DeCicco has taken advantage of the absence of redshirt sophomore Irvan Brown (chest) and is looking like Pitt’s No. 3 safety.
It’s hard not to watch practice and imagine a Panthers secondary with the 6-3, 210-pound DeCicco playing next to 6-2, 215-pound Elijah Fields next season. What a scary combination, especially considering Pitt also will return starter Eric Thatcher and Chappel.
• Freshman fullback Henry Hynoski has been overshadowed by classmates McCoy and Shariff Harris, but the former Southern Columbia star is the real deal. The 245-pound Hynoski ripped off a big run, spinning off a tackle and racing to the left sideline in practice.
• Although he hasn’t been cleared to participate in contact drills, fifth-year senior Mike McGlynn (shoulder) kept busy by snapping to quarterbacks during individual drills. No word on whether McGlynn will move to center.
• Stull hasn’t wowed anyone with his arm strength, but he has a presence in the huddle and is showing toughness by practicing with a glove on his right (throwing) hand, where a cut on his thumb required five stitches.
In 11-on-11 drills, Stull threw a pretty pass that dropped over the shoulder of tight end Nate Byham, who was blanketed in coverage by Scott McKillop. It was easily the nicest pass Stull threw during camp,
The defense showed Stull some respect by pulling up when he ran a keeper toward the right sideline, then cut upfield. Defensive tackle Gus Mustakas yelled ‘Boo!’ Safety Eric Thatcher teased Stull, saying, “You have no moves.”
Both players had a clean shot at Stull, but know the QB is off limits even if he’s not wearing a green jersey to designate no contact. It’s clear Stull’s teammates understand he’s their quarterback and are being protective.
• One reason why you’re not hearing much about the passing game is because the defense has defended the pass.
Murray continues to deflect passes at the last moment, as he did on one intended for Strong. DeCicco dived to knock away another pass for Strong. One thrown to Porter was broken up by corner Lowell Robinson, who also clothes-lined Maurice Williams on a high pass. Nix also knocked away a pass intended for Austin Ransom.
Corner Aaron Berry also continues to blanket receivers on the sidelines, showing he learned something from Darrelle Revis last season. When Stull rolled right and threw to Oderick Turner, Berry made a nice deflection.
• If sophomore tailback Kevin Collier is slipping on the depth chart – and McCoy is taking first- and second-team reps ahead of him – he’s not going down without a fight. Collier had his best practice, running hard and picking up big gains. His best play came when he took a toss right and froze Chappel in the open field before cutting inside for an additional 5 yards.
• Pitt practices twice Tuesday, with the first a shoulder pads-and-shorts session focusing mostly on special teams and the second a 75-play scrimmage with officials that should help clear up the depth chart by mid-week.
“We’ll make a few decisions,” Wannstedt said. “No one is going to win a job or lose a job off this first scrimmage, but it sure as heck is going to give guys opportunities to get our attention.”